MY TAKEAWAYS FROM AN INCREDIBLE SEASON SPENT CHASING THE PHANTOM OF THE FOREST
As I made the drive to Duluth, passing snow covered field after snow covered field, my mind began to wander. I had several days to scout for great gray owls leading up to my next tour but I couldn’t get my mind off of the previous year. The all too familiar stories that I had heard from other photographers over the years echoed in my head. Stories of spending hour after hour in search of great gray owls only to come up empty handed. In many cases, they would spend several days canvassing the known “hot spots” only to miss the birds altogether, wasting days and perhaps weeks in the field with their cameras by their sides. But I had never come up empty. Call them the “phantom of the forest” or the “great gray ghost”. They might be hard to find but I had never hosted a tour that didn’t end up with a photo op. In fact, I had never hosted a tour that didn’t result in multiple sightings throughout the week.
Great gray owls are known to be a tough subject to photograph on a good day but they are even harder to find when Mother Nature decides that she doesn’t want to cooperate. When temperatures reach -40 (F), nothing moves. And I mean nothing. Small birds cling to their perches, only flying when it’s absolutely necessary. Deer cautiously make their way through the frozen forest as if they are in slow motion. Most importantly, the rodents that great gray owls rely on for sustenance are hidden away, safely under the warm insulation that snow helps them conserve as much energy as possible. That’s the challenge that extreme cold delivers. Nothing moves. Nothing.
Label it good, old fashioned bad luck. Call it the coronavirus curse. 2020 was a year to remember for all the wrong reasons and perhaps the most challenging pair of great gray owl tours that I’ve ever hosted. We found subjects, but only when the weather decided to cut us a break. 2021 was upon me and I wanted to do everything I could to get my photography clients in the right spots to capture images of this rare bird.
As I continued the drive, the snow covered fields of Minnesota vanished into the fading light. A fresh layer of snow began to fall, illuminated by my headlights. The winter wonderland that every photographer dreams about was starting to appear. My anticipation started to grow, knowing that Mother Nature was in the process of providing the perfect winter landscape for photography. If I could only find a couple of subjects in this spectacular setting, it would be nothing less than epic.
The thrill of photographing great gray owls is unique because they are so tough to find. The “phantom of the forest,” as they are often called, seems to revel in the fact that they can make a photography tour guide’s week a challenging one. Find a couple of great grays to photograph and it’s a good day. Find three and you feel like you’ve gotten away with something. Anything more and the owl gods are simply shining down upon you. But that’s what makes it special. Many photographers have set out to accomplish the task. Many have come away with lackluster results or even nothing at all.
My process for finding great gray owls has always been simple. After photographing them in Minnesota for several years, I have compiled a list of permanent residents; non-migratory owls that have become a staple to my great gray owl photography tours. One in particular resides within the borders of the Sax-Zim Bog, a protected area that provides the perfect habitat for the species. Next, I consider a few locations that have been passed onto me by a few of my photography friends who frequent the area. Finally, I do some good old-fashioned scouting of my own, looking specifically for habitat that great gray owls like to frequent.
My friend had just visited the area and had found a couple of birds in a location that we hadn’t scouted in previous years. Mike and I have known each other for years and, while the numbers were limited, I had faith in his findings. He too was a photographer. Best of all, I was the one who “pulled” him into the craft over a decade ago and he always seems to repay me with his best leads. Great gray owls were one of his favorite subjects due to the fact that finding them is a lot like fishing. Sometimes they are biting. Sometimes they are not. Therein lies the reward.
3 TAKEAWAYS FROM MY RECENT GREAT GRAY OWL PHOTOGRAPHY TOUR
TAKEAWAY #1 – 2021 WOULD TURN OUT TO BE A EXCEPTIONAL YEAR FOR GREAT GRAY OWLS
After arriving at my hotel in Duluth I crafted my scouting agenda for the next few days. My photography clients were set to arrive in a few days so time was critical. My first instinct was to go straight to my faithful winged companions who had become permanent residents. I was tired from travel and they had served as the most predictable subjects in years past. But something told me to check the spot that Mike had recommended. As I made my way down the highway I spotted a great gray owl, not more than a few hundred feet away from where my friend had spotted one a week earlier. As I continued to drive I spotted another. And another. And another. Before the light had faded, I had spotted 10 great gray owls, all within a 7-mile radius. Mike said that they had found two. Thanks to his advice, I had just hit the jackpot.
I continued to search the area, knowing that the odds of ever finding a location sporting 10 great gray owls was severely limited. As my clients arrived, I made sure to hold my enthusiasm in check, understanding that this could be the best five day great gray owl photography shoot of my career. We set out on the first day and found a subject within the first hour. Then another. And another. By the time the tour had concluded, we had spotted 25 great gray owls.
TAKEAWAY #2 – THE WORST DAYS WERE ACTUALLY THE BEST DAYS
There has been a trend in business over the last decade that focuses heavily on data. During my time in the corporate world I had learned all of the cliches. The “you can’t improve what you don’t measure” concept had run amuck, causing many in business to overlook the overwhelmingly obvious; the end result. I get it, analysis can be absolutely critical but sometimes it pays to use good-old fashioned judgment. So here’s the data:
Tour Day #1 6 owls spotted
Tour Day #2 8 owls spotted
Tour Day #3 5 owls spotted
Tour Day #4 1 owl spotted
Tour Day #5 5 owls spotted
So which day was the best day of the tour? Day 4. Yes, we had only spotted one owl, but it actively hunted in front of us for close to four hours.
TAKEAWAY #3 – MOTHER NATURE PROVIDED SOME INCREDIBLE SCENES
As I spent my first few days scouting the area, I checked the forecast on an hourly basis. Although I was happy for the unseasonably warm temperatures, I also knew that it could ruin what was perhaps the best winter landscape that I had ever seen in all of my years of photographing great gray owls. The excessive amount of moisture in the air had covered the forest with a layer of hoarfrost. If only it would last until my photography clients had a chance to take advantage of it.
Thankfully, the temperatures were cold enough to preserve the setting for the first several days of the tour. As my clients arrived, they were in awe of the landscape that mother nature had provided. It was a win-win in the end, as I was in awe of their photographs.